Category Archives: Science

Remember the Alamosa!

A couple of days ago, my friend Elizabeth commented thus:

Probably, the best thing about crossing Kansas will be that, when you are done, you can say…. wait for it…. “I’m not in Kansas anymore.” Sorry if I stole that one from you but, hey, you’re better than that, right?

No, Elizabeth. No. I am NOT better than that. I was totally going to use that and now I can’t. Nor can I think of anything involving Toto, scarecrows, tin men, or yellow brick roads.

Still, this morning, I got the hell out of Dodge.

After a bit of the flat flatness that I was expecting out of Kansas and eastern Colorado, I started getting treated to views like this one:

The Rocky Road?

Plains, plains, plains, plains, MOUNTAINS.

Ended up in a town in Colorado called Alamosa.

I’d never even heard of Alamosa, so I had no real idea what to expect. Imagine, then, my joy when I discovered this, in downtown Alamosa:

Not that brewpubs are uncommon in Colorado

And the heavens opened and seven angels sang…

They know how to make beer in Colorado. I hear even Coors used to be good before it went national. Had lunch there, sampled a few of the brews, and found them pleasing.

Anyway, it turns out Alamosa’s a small college town along the Rio Grande (yes, the Rio Grande stretches up into Colorado), and it sits in a valley that’s about 7500 feet above sea level.

Water boils at about 198F at 7500 feet. I guess that doesn’t stop them from making beer.

No worries about water boiling tonight, though – the forecast calls for -10F overnight. So no, I won’t be leaving the heated hotel room. Not even for beer.

Santa Fe, New Mexico

I’ve come to the conclusion that if you don’t care for Mexican-style food, you should stay the hell away from New Mexico.

Me? I love the stuff. After being entirely unable to find tonight’s designated brewpub (Second Street Brewery), I drove around until I found a different brewpub, Blue Corn Cafe and Brewery. Good beer, if a bit too much emphasis on IPAs, and excellent food.

It was important to me that I find one brewery or another, because tomorrow, I leave the water desert and enter… the beer desert. No breweries in the Beertabase near my route for a few days.

First thing this morning, though, the route took me near Four Corners – the one spot in the entire country where four states come to a common point: Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico.

That concept always struck me as kinda cool but mostly silly. After all, the state boundaries are largely arbitrary in that region; most don’t follow anything real like rivers or mountain ridges. But I’ve spent most of my adult life working for and with surveyors, so from that perspective, I wanted to see it.

The official corner, complete with tourists.

Which means that I finally managed to set foot in Colorado (a stopover at the Denver airport twenty years ago does not count).

Two things, though:

First of all, the site not only divides four states, but two nations: Navajo and Ute. The Navajo maintain the site, and they’ve got booths set up in all four states for a massive marketplace. And the stuff they sell is pretty cool – some of the usual tourist trap crap, but also some very awesome art and jewelry.

But the greatest amusement value, for me, is that it’s in the wrong place.

The geographical coordinates, based on Wikipedia (which as we know may or may not be correct, but the point remains that the point’s off), are: 36°59′56.31532″N 109°02′42.62019″W. While the longitude is fairly close (it was never meant to be based on Greenwich-standard meridians, which are the ones used on maps these days), the latitude should have been exactly 37 degrees north.

Without getting too technical, though, I’ll first say that the corner is the corner – the surveyed point takes precedence over any theoretical values; this is a principle that holds true for most surveyed lines. And considering that the latitude line was surveyed around the turn of the last century, before any kind of GPS or modern survey techniques, I’d say they were damn good.

See, surveying a straight north/south line – a longitude line – is pretty simple, once you know the longitude of a given point (which is itself tricky – it requires an accurate timepiece and knowledge of where certain celestial bodies should be at a given time) you just survey a straight line north or south. Simple in principle – though it still requires good survey skills.

In contrast to the mathematical trickiness of determining longitude, determining latitude is fairly simple: you set up a level instrument and take the angle from horizontal to celestial north, which is close to but not spot on the North Star, Polaris. (Or the south celestial pole if you’re in that other hemisphere.) That angle is your latitude – if you’re at sea level, which is useful for sailors. Takes skill, sure, and there are complications, such as local elevation above sea level (which itself is fairly arbitrary on a world with tides). With a quick search, I couldn’t find the actual elevation of Four Corners, but it’s very roughly a mile above mean sea level (based on signs in the vicinity that proclaim a 5000 foot elevation).

Okay, I’m getting too technical after all, but just one more point: while a latitude line appears straight and horizontal on a Mercator map projection, when you’re on the ground surveying the thing, every so often you have to bend the line to approximate a very large radius curve – it’s not a “straight line” from the perspective of spherical geometry. The only latitude line that’s truly straight (ignoring the curvature of the earth) is the equator. Look at the 37th parallel from a point on the 37th parallel, viewing east or west, and there’ll be a very slight curve to the north.

So, all things considered, it’s pretty damn close. We could get it much, much closer with modern GPS surveying techniques, and you’d find that spot to be located about a third of a mile away. But again, it doesn’t matter – because the surveyed boundary takes precedence over the theoretical one.

Surveying isn’t a glamorous profession, even though at least two of the U.S. Founding Fathers (Washington and Jefferson) practiced it, but they have some pretty serious responsibility in a country where land boundaries determine so much.

Okay, enough about that. Back to important stuff.

When I was going through my Beertabase, I discovered another unique thing in New Mexico: an abbey brewery. Common in Europe (some of my very favorite beers are from Belgian monasteries), you don’t get a lot of that in the U.S. As far as I know, this is the only one (if there’s another, I’ll find it eventually). And it was close to my route – close enough to the route, but remote enough from other places, that I knew that if I didn’t visit the [warning: audio on the linked page seems to start automatically] Monastery of Christ in the Desert on this trip, I might not ever make it there again.

Just in case it’s not clear, that is not the building where they make the beer.

So I drove 16 miles along a single-lane, rutted, gravel road, past some of the most amazing scenery I’ve encountered, and then had to walk the final 1/3 mile or so to the gift shop.

Where I discovered that they don’t actually sell the beer there.

In fact, disappointingly, I think they contract with some other brewery to actually make the beer – but from what I understand, it’s still under their supervision, and the trip was totally worth it, so… no regrets.

I probably should point out that I’m not Catholic. In fact, I’m not religious in any conventional sense – unless you count what Ben Franklin supposedly said: “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” But you don’t have to be religious to appreciate the scenery, setting, solitude or serenity of the place.

I even got to meet one of the monks, at their gift shop, where I made some small keepsake purchases (including a little book on abbey-style brewing around the world). Anything to support the Cause (that is, the Cause of promoting craft brewing regardless of the religious or political affiliation of the brewers).

On the way from there to Santa Fe – a good hour’s drive – I stopped in a local convenience store and picked up a six-pack of their Abbey Ale. Haven’t had any, yet, but I will.

I’ll just leave you with one more pic to give you a better idea of the setting.

Yep. Totally worth my car’s ruined suspension. (Just kidding – my Subaru can take way worse than that)

Casper, Wyoming

I’m lucky to be here.

No, no, I don’t mean it like that. I mean that every hotel in central Wyoming is booked solid – combination of oil boom and nearby wildfires. And no, I don’t know what happens if the wildfires reach the oil wells. I want to be gone before that happens.

But I managed to get a room at Parkway Plaza Hotel that didn’t cost me body parts and which, happily, had a free shuttle to the local brewpub!

…as usual when beer is involved, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Hell yeah geology!

That, of course, is Bear Lodge, aka Devils Tower. I got there around, I dunno, 9:30 in the morning or so, hung around the visitor center for a while to look at the exhibits, and then decided to walk around the formation.

There’s a trail, about a mile and a quarter long, that circles the base. It being a really nice day, the trail was well-populated. Most people circle it widdershins, I noticed. I don’t know why. Of course I had to be different and go deosil, or clockwise. For one thing, this ensured that I wouldn’t be annoyed by people insisting on walking just slightly too slowly in front of me. You know how it goes: You got a good pace going and you don’t want to slow down, but the people in front of you also have their own good pace going and it’s incrementally slower than yours. You can a) slow down to match their pace (annoying); b) speed up to pass (not always easy on a narrow trail) or c) wait until either you or they get tired and step off the trail. It’s worse when you’ve done (a) and then they suddenly decide to come to a complete and sudden halt right in front of you.

So, yeah, I avoided all that by walking deosil.

I got a couple dozen pictures, from all angles. I saw people climbing it – with and without ropes. I saw one person standing on the edge of the summit like he or she (I was too far away to tell) owned all of the Black Hills.

I should note that I had to use my backup camera (aka Android phone) for the pics; my Nikon’s batteries are shot and won’t hold a charge. Completely annoying when traveling. But that’s why I always have a backup.

So, just one more picture, from a different angle:

We’re rockin’ now.

The geology of the area is well-studied; an igneous intrusion into sedimentary layers, and the layers got eroded away over millions of years, leaving the more erosion-resistant igneous rock. There are different theories of exactly what forces formed the magma intrusion, but that’s the basics.

Me, I’m fond of the legends related in this article, especially:

According to the Native American tribes of the Kiowa and Lakota Sioux, some girls went out to play and were spotted by several giant bears, who began to chase them. In an effort to escape the bears, the girls climbed atop a rock, fell to their knees, and prayed to the Great Spirit to save them. Hearing their prayers, the Great Spirit made the rock rise from the ground towards the heavens so that the bears could not reach the girls. The bears, in an effort to climb the rock, left deep claw marks in the sides, which had become too steep to climb. (Those are the marks which appear today on the sides of Devils Tower.) When the girls reached the sky, they were turned into the star constellation the Pleiades.

Because it involves bears and the Pleiades.

So all in all I spent a couple of hours there, and made it to Casper well before nightfall.

The local brewpub is Wonder Bar, which has four beers of its own as well as several craft and macro brews on tap. I stuck with their own beer, a nice selection of wheat ale, pale ale, red ale, and dark ale – all of which were quite good. But it’s the red I filled up on, taking advantage of having a shuttle back to the hotel.

Tomorrow? Utah, which has a surprising number of breweries, most of which I will not be able to visit on this trip.

Dang da Dang Dang

I keep seeing stuff about the “blue moon” today and how it “coincides with Neil Armstrong‘s funeral.”

Someone is WRONG on the internet, and I’m here to set the record straight.

The thing that’s wrong is the idea that a “blue moon” is any second full moon in a calendar month. It’s not. That’s the result of an error printed in an old magazine (“Sky and Telescope” if I recall correctly) from the mid-1940s.

Not A Blue Moon – because no one reads blog posts without graphics anymore.

To fully explain this, though, there’s a bit of background. First, the calendar we use today, officially called the “Gregorian” calendar after some monk who revised the Julian calendar (named after Caesar). For our purposes, the differences between Gregorian and Julian don’t really matter much; all that matters is the knowledge that our calendar is a solar calendar that long ago divorced itself from the natural cycles of the moon. Now, there are good reasons to use a solar calendar, but lunar cycles and solar cycles just don’t coincide; therefore, what we call a “month” isn’t truly a “month” (same root as the word “moon”) at all but an arbitrary number of solar days that’s usually a day or three longer than a lunar month, which I’ll call a “lunation” to avoid confusion.

So what happens is a situation where these mostly-arbitrary collections of days, called “months,” can easily hold two full moons (or, conversely, two new moons, or two whatever-phase-you-want-to-name moons). But the important point is that the number of days in a month is artificial, while the number of days in a lunation is set by the orbital periods of the moon around Earth and Earth around the sun.

Now, the second part of the background here is that back in the old days, before neon lights and such, people named each full moon based on the season in which it appeared. Most seasons contained three full moons, and the name of the full moon corresponded to its position in the season. These names varied culturally, so you get several different names for the full moon. The only one anyone ever talks about anymore is the Harvest Moon, which is the first full moon of the fall season. People would plant and reap and such based on these moons – not the best system, of course, because once the season changes you have about 29 days in which that first full moon can occur, but since the moon provided extra light at night, these things were important.

And the final bit of background, which most people already know: the seasons themselves are defined by solstices and equinoxes – again, natural cycles, cycles which even early societies could compute to a high degree of accuracy. Essentially, a solstice represents the sun’s minimum and maximum azimuth throughout the year at solar noon, and an equinox is when the sun’s path appears to cross the equator going from north to south or vice-versa. Solstice and equinox days are mostly a function of the Earth’s axial tilt, influenced to some degree by the eccentricity of its elliptical orbit.

Because of these last two bits of background, some rare seasons contain four, not three, full moons – because each season is a bit more than 91 days, you could have a full moon just after a solstice, for example, and then another one just before the equinox. Or vice-versa.

Which brings me to the original definition of “Blue Moon,” which the Wikipedia article of that name sometimes gets wrong:

A blue moon is the third full moon in a season containing four full moons.

(When I started writing this, Wiki said it was the fourth full moon in such a season; it seems to have been corrected again now. As we all know, Wikipedia has its uses and its limitations. Here’s the link to the page so you can see for yourself.)

So, for example, between the summer solstice and the fall equinox, normally you have the Hay Moon, the Grain Moon, and the Fruit Moon (to use the English names listed on this Wikipedia page). But sometimes the Hay Moon falls just after the summer solstice, and there’s a fourth full moon just before the fall equinox. In such a season, the fourth full moon becomes the Fruit Moon, and the one before it, in August, will be called the Blue Moon. It happens only rarely, hence the expression, “once in a blue moon.”

That is exactly what’s going to happen next year, 2013: August will have a Blue Moon.

August does NOT have a Blue Moon this year.

Also not a Blue Moon. Also not beer.

Why is it important to point out this misinformation? After all, now you have the usual trolls insisting that the “twice in a calendar month” definition is the One True Definition, just to annoy purists like me – in much the same way that I sometimes use the Comic Sans font to annoy graphics purists. Well, it’s important because as I mentioned, the calendar we use is highly arbitrary. Using the “third full moon in a season containing four full moons” definition separates “blue moon” from the calendar, so it would be true whether using Julian, Gregorian, or one of the various lunar calendars in existence today – or some new calendar we haven’t used yet.

My personal favorite idea for calendar reform, incidentally, is the Tranquility Calendar, because I maintain that the single most significant event in human history is the moment people first visited a world other than our own, so it should be the beginning of a new Earthly calendar.

And that brings us full circle, as is appropriate for a post on the calendar.